Depositions are a specific type of judicial document. We deal with them separately here because of their importance as much during the progress of judicial proceedings as within our "virtual archive."

Produced by the judicial system, depositions are in a way the basic documents of criminal trials. They are transcripts of examinations, that is to say, of the verbal exchange between the lawyers on one hand and the witness in the witness box on the other. Reading these depositions is a bit like attending a trial. In theory, they should contain the exact words that were exchanged.

In Quebec in the 1920s, depositions took the form of typewritten documents whose length varied between several pages and several dozen pages, depending on the questions asked by the lawyers and the importance of the witness. They always had a heading indicating the date, the place, the context in which the deposition was produced (preliminary inquiry or trial), the name of the accused and the name of the deponent, as well as the deponent's age, profession, dwelling place and sometimes relationship to the accused. The text of a deposition was always presented in the form of questions and answers and note was systematically taken of whom the witness was examined or cross-examined by, whether it was the Crown attorney, the defence counsel or the court (the judge). If there was a pause during the testimony, this was also indicated (time of the break, time resumed).

Depositions did more than report the facts in order to shed light on a crime. In their testimony, deponents revealed "ordinary" aspects of their daily lives. Insignificant events, a way of speaking about such or such a thing, meals, neighbourhood relations, daily activities -- these were dimensions of life that were taken for granted by people at the time, but which can appear strange and fascinating to us today.

Before using the depositions, it is important to understand the context in which they were produced. The examination, after all, took place in the context of a public confrontation between a lawyer and a witness. It could be in the interest of both to not present the "facts" with as much precision and candour as an historian might like. Court clerks, moreover, however talented and responsible they might have been, were not machines and stenography was not an exact science. Errors could therefore creep into the transcripts they drew up, and words could be misinterpreted. Sometimes a judge would complain about the poor work of his court clerk and it even happened occasionally that the transcripts published in newspapers were of better quality than those delivered in the official depositions.

All the same, judicial depositions are a wealth of valuable information for those who want to study a wide variety of aspects of social regulation and crime in Canada at the beginning of the 20th century. They plunge us into a universe of details and particulars, from which it is sometimes easier to imagine the whole. The depositions pertaining to the Gagnon affair are generally found at the National Archives of Quebec in Quebec City, in the fonds of the courts having produced them: Sessions de la Paix (Sessions of the Peace) for the preliminary inquiries (not to be confused with the coroner's inquest) and Banc du Roi (King's Bench) for the criminal trials.